There’s a cineaste myth that Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise, which opened in New York on April 3, 1968, at the out-of-the-way Kip’s Bay Theater, inspired the Columbia students who, three weeks later, began occupying campus buildings.
Godard had recently toured Ameri- can colleges with a print of La Chinoise— initially considered unreleasable—but he never got any closer to New York than SUNY Albany and, if reviews in the sec- tarian press are any indication, student radicals took La Chinoise as more snarky satire than glamorous model for action. (The Battle of Algiers was the real revolutionary film du jour.) Protests at Columbia had been gathering momentum since mid-March and, hardly a movie, it was the April 4 assassination of Martin Luther King that raised the stakes there, as everywhere else.
Still, like its drive-in and Broadway equivalents Wild in the Streets and Hair, which also appeared that April, La Chinoise was an integral part of the ’68 juggernaut. With the May student uprising in Paris (which some Columbia militants imagined they inspired), Godard appeared remarkably prescient; he’d seem more so after the 1970 explosion of a Village townhouse turned Weathermen bomb factory.
Not just a period film, La Chinoise, blazing in all its glory for nine days this month on the Film Forum screen, is a chunk of the period.
It’s also a spectacular accomplishment within a sustained performance unique in movie history. From Breathless (1959) through Weekend (1968), Godard reinvented cinema. There are no analogies—imagine Faulkner’s eight-novel run, The Sound and the Fury (1929) through The Wild Palms (1939), as a cultural intervention with the pow of Warhol’s “silver” period or the three Dylan-goes-electric LPs.
In 1967, Godard was what was happening. He’d begun the ’60s tinkering with montage and rewiring movie genre; as the decade progressed, he addressed its ongoing cultural revolution. Thus La Chinoise, most simply described as the tale of five young militants who establish their Maoist cell in a spacious Paris apartment left vacant for the summer by its bourgeois owners, then argue their way towards an act of political terror.
Godard being Godard, however, La Chinoise isn’t so easily characterized. Neither drama nor documentary, it’s a movie that jettisons narrative suspense for something both more spontaneous and more detached. It’s a fiction transparently imposed on reality; the camera is sometimes shown and the filmmaker can be heard prompting his young performers with questions. The most articulate of the bunch is Anne Wiazemsky, the 20-year-old philosophy student that Godard would shortly marry. Having made her debut the year before in Robert Bresson’s Au Hazard Balthazar, Wiazemsky here plays a banker’s daughter. (In reality, she was another sort of thoroughbred, the granddaughter of the Nobel laureate François Mauriac).
Wiazemsky’s devoted boyfriend (nouvelle vague icon Jean-Pierre Léaud) is a romantic actor, smitten with Brecht and never more enthralled by Wiazemsky’s ascetic good looks and petulant glare than when she uses a declaration of unlove to teach the lesson of “struggle on two fronts.” The other communards include a more conventional communist (Michel Semeniako), who nevertheless defends the Hollywood movie Johnny Guitar; a sometime prostitute from the countryside (Juliet Berto), who does all the housework while Wiazemsky vogues around in her modish poor-boy caps; and a painter, Kirilov (Lex De Bruijn), who is named for one Dostoyevsky character and riffs on a line attributed to another: “If Marxism-Leninism exists, all is permitted.”
With its bright colors, decorative mounds of Mao’s Little Red Book, and bold slogans scrawled across the walls, the apartment resembles a progressive kindergarten; these infantile leftists are forever playing with toys until, shockingly, they aren’t. Visually, La Chinoise is as punchy as a poster, or maybe a hundred. It’s a phenomenally busy assemblage composed of political clichés, improvised monologues, and found Pop Art—including Claude Channes’s hilarious ye-ye ditty “Mao Mao.” Primary colors dominate, red in particular; guerrilla-theater agitprop disrupts the action like the Busby Berkeley numbers in an old Warner Brothers musical. The set pieces are astonishing. In the longest of these, Wiazemsky shares a train compartment with her real-life professor, the onetime communist activist Francis Jeanson. As the train starts and stops, she advocates terror to shut down the universities as he, not altogether convincingly, attempts to demolish her argument.
In some respects, Wiazemsky is the real subject of La Chinoise, and this scene—which, among other things, pays homage to a comparable train ride in Murnau’s Sunrise—is the essence of the movie. It’s constant talk, and yet cinema keeps wafting in. How can this beautiful girl be espousing such murderous abstractions? The moving landscape, the light on her face, are as indifferently fresh and new-minted as if the camera had been invented just for this.
In the midst of her tumultuous year as The New York Times‘s film critic, Renata Adler referred repeatedly to La Chinoise; her admiring review called it the “perfect companion piece” to The Battle of Algiers. Indeed, anyone wishing to ponder the origins and fate of the European New Left, as well as the development of political terrorism, should rent The Battle of Algiers, catch La Chinoise, and then go see Barbet Schroeder’s engrossing new documentary, Terror’s Advocate.
Thirty-plus years after his docu-shocker Idi Amin Dada, Schroeder portrays another manifestation of political evil—rogue lawyer Jacques Vergés. A sometime communist most notorious for defending Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie, a/k/a the Butcher of Lyons, Vergés claims to identify with the France of Montaigne and Diderot—but though he is the suave embodiment of Third World rage, there is a particular, awful logic to his career.
The son of a French father and an Indo-Chinese mother, Vergés was an anticolonial activist whose student comrades included the future butcher of Cambodia, Pol Pot. As a young lawyer, Vergés was immersed in the struggle for Algerian independence—most prominently as the defense attorney for Djamila Bouhired, the real-life prototype for the female bombers in Battle of Algiers. (Francis Jeanson, who ran a clandestine Algerian National Liberation Front support group in France, was another client; confronted in La Chinoise with the Anne Wiazemsky character’s plan to bomb the Sorbonne, Jeanson is in effect debating a would-be Djamila.) Not altogether unromantic, Vergés married Algeria’s revolutionary heroine, then disappeared into the underground, only to re-emerge in the violent aftermath of the ’60s as an attorney for the West German zealots of the Red Army Faction and the world’s most wanted man, terror
ist Carlos the Jackal.
Terror’s Advocate is largely a mix of talking heads and archival footage, but as Vergés’s connections to Swiss neo-Nazis and Congo secessionists are explored, the movie becomes a fantastic international thriller. Schroeder doesn’t put his urbane, cigar-puffing subject on trial; there are no tough questions, and barely an allusion to Vergés’s evident anti-Semitism. Context
is all, as well as overweening vanity. This smiling bon vivant projects total self-satisfaction. Terror works: No client is so vile that Vergés cannot use the case to avenge his humiliation at the hands of the French and mock their vaunted enlightenment.